Hundreds of artists and art fans made their way to downtown's Legend City Studios on a cool Friday night in October for Randy Slack's 13th annual art exhibition known as Chaos Theory. In years past, the event was as much about the after-hours party in the parking lot as the creative gathering inside the gallery, but this year, guests showed up earlier, there was less booze on the tables, and the hottest fashion accessory was a baby (and maybe a toddler or two).
Artists brought their families, their kids met and ran around large sculptures in the middle of the gallery, and a few commented on how "everybody's getting older" — a fact and sentiment that affected one of the biggest decisions Randy Slack's had to make in the 13 years of Chaos Theory.
The event has grown bigger and faster than Slack ever imagined, and this year, 60 artists were on the bill for the one-night show at the studio/gallery space painter Slack owns with three photographers, Jason Grubb, John Balinkie, and Brandon Sullivan.
Though Chaos Theory is known to showcase all levels of work by artists in all formats, Slack has always kept a close eye on what goes up on the walls and what doesn't make the cut — including pieces of his own and one by a close friend. This week, he learned the hard way that curatorial decisions can cause quite the ripple, thanks to social media.
Chaos Theory, as Slack explains, never has a theme. He invites a large number of artists to participate, including art community anchors, emerging artists, and some creatives who ask to be involved and show Slack a few pieces of their work. The actual works shown are all chosen by the artists and hastily dropped off the week of the show (often hours before he opens the doors). The chaos, he says, begins with the installation.
Over the phone on the Thursday evening before Chaos Theory 13, local painter Suzanne Falk described what happened when she tried to drop off her piece.
Falk grew up in Phoenix and is known for her hyper-realistic still-lifes of cartoon animals with innocent expressions and sugarcoated environments. She's been invited to showcase her work each year since the event's inception. But this year, things were a little different.
"I went and dropped off my painting," she says. "And I'm not naive. I assumed there was going to be a little bit of a fuss, but I never imagined that the delivery of the piece would be the issue."
Falk describes her piece as a reaction to a critique of last year's show by New Times art critic Kathleen Vanesian, who reviewed the show in the October 20, 2011, issue of the paper and wrote, in part:
"The same funky formlessness that's become a predictable part of this annual art exhibition is still the controlling factor in Chaos Theory XII — only I now appreciate why the term "chaos" is more than just theory in this show . . .
While Suzanne Meow Meow Falk's The Defenders of Sweet Dreams displays the artist's usual mastery of her medium, I just wish she would venture out of her comfort zone and mix a little acid with the sweetness of her nostalgic still-lifes."
Some artists would welcome a comment like that as constructive criticism. Indeed, with so many participating in Chaos Theory 12, Vanesian didn't write about each piece in the show. At the time, some were angry over being omitted from her review, saying they would have preferred a negative comment to nothing. Falk is not one of those artists.
"I took it hard," says Falk. "I spent months on that piece . . . So this year, I wanted to be a little campy, to call out some of the misogyny I've seen in other pieces in the show. I wanted to kick the box a little."
The piece she brought to Slack was a 5-by-7-inch oil on canvas titled in heaven, everything is fine.
The artist describes the painting, which depicts a number of young men in a circle jerk, or group masturbation, as something she's been interested in doing for a while. "I'm working on this body of work while I'm doing my other stuff," she says. "I thought it'd be a good opportunity to get some feedback from people who know me and know what I normally do."
Slack didn't bite. He says that though the piece didn't offend him personally, it didn't fit with the mission of the show, that Chaos Theory wasn't the venue in which to hang Falk's "fuck you to New Times" and was inappropriate for the all-ages audience that usually floods the huge studio/gallery space on Van Buren Street.
"It's a great painting," says Slack. "And if she'd approached me earlier, we could have made a booth or something."
Truth is, Slack already had drawn a line in the curatorial sand an hour earlier when another artist had stopped by with a painting he also refused. It was a piece by Phoenix artist Eric Cox, whose painting didn't fit the bill because of its imagery and message, according to Slack. The piece, titled candy coat is a 72-by-53-inch mixed-media piece on canvas of a nude female thrusting forward. According to Slack, it was what Cox described as a "fuck you to Phoenix."
Cox apparently understood the reaction and asked if he could submit something else.
"I think people need to understand that I have so much to consider when putting this show together," Slack told New Times just before the show. "Including the 1,000 people who are going to be here."
Cox spoke about his paintings in a long e-mail exchange with New Times on the night of Chaos Theory. He says he didn't see Slack's decision as anything personal but as something influenced by current culture and the opinions of the art community.
"I consider Randy a friend and I am not offended by how he handled curating Chaos Theory," he writes. "Having my painting sent back is not a reflection of Randy's personal beliefs but rather a direct reflection of the Phoenix art culture. The Chaos Theory show, along with other galleries, have their specific agendas, whether it be to have a grand party, make a statement, or to sell art. With that being said, my agenda is to continue to create, promote, and advance my art career, but it is also to express myself. I am an artist, and I intend to create a question with my work."
Cox says he created the piece in response to being censored by another gallery in Phoenix. "I will no longer candy-coat my subject, my process, or my intentions," he writes.
But for Chaos, he provided another piece. The large portrait, titled Welcome to Arizona, featured a dazed-looking Sheriff Joe Arpaio in a sombrero. It drew large groups of Chaos Theory attendees, who laughed, discussed, and stepped up to the painting for closer looks.
Cox and Falk say they saw the decision as an act of censorship, a practice in the art world that dates back to the beginning of art and continues in the contemporary art world. Notable and controversial examples include:
• The Corcoran Gallery of Art's refusing to show Robert Mapplethorpe's 1989 traveling photography exhibition of nude males because of the obscene, homoerotic, and sadomasochistic nature of the pieces, according to the curators,
• The continuing reactions, vandalism, and refusals to show photographer Andres Serrano's work, which often include coats of bodily fluids on religious and cultural subject matter,
• And the governmental shutdown of Chinese contemporary artist and activist Ai Weiwei, who was put in jail and had his studio destroyed by the Chinese government.
Slack's actions obviously were not as dramatic, but Falk and Cox were upset nonetheless.
"When I get turned down for a show — which I was invited to — because there is a vagina present in my nude female portrait, it reflects poorly on the scene," Cox writes. "Thus, it begs the question: What's so offensive about a vagina?"
Falk agrees. "Randy says there are going to be children at the show," she said Thursday night. "And that's fine with me. But I don't paint for children. So we hit a stalemate, and we were both pretty stymied by the situation. I left really upset . . . I guess he can do what he wants. It was just very surprising."
Falk posted on her Facebook page: "my painting for chaos theory was refused — i need time to choose my words for exactly what i want to say." She blocked Randy Slack from commenting or seeing the discussion, and in 24 hours, more than 175 comments from the art community poured in.
Accusations of homophobia and hypocrisy were common, but the main discussion turned to censorship. Slack says it definitely is not censorship.
"I've never censored anyone," he says. "I'm not a homophobe. I'm not a misogynist. I'm just an artist who happens to have an art show, and I've had to make some really difficult decisions. If Suzanne wants to push the boundaries and test her limits because of what Kathleen says, I'm not preventing her from doing so — she can paint sex acts all day. But I don't have to show them."
Vanesian insists Slack's decision was curatorial — not an act of censorship.
"If a circle jerk is artfully done, then it's a piece of art," she says. "But the intention appears to be not to be creating a piece of art, but making a statement in regard to an art review Ms. Falk was not happy with during the last show. I'm a great believer in the First Amendment, but Randy is the curator, and if Randy feels that a piece is inappropriate for whatever reason — it could be a shitty piece, if it doesn't fit in to the concept — then he has every right to decide who is in and who is out. No one has a constitutional right to be in Chaos Theory."
This was not the first — or even the second — time Vanesian became the center of attention as a result of Chaos Theory. After the first Chaos Theory show in 2000, her review was so poorly received someone anonymously mailed her a Bratz doll.
Slack says he understands Falk's situation because he's been there himself as an artist. "I've painted boobs, I've made edgy paintings, and for years, I didn't understand why I couldn't get into a gallery. So eventually, I opened my own. And [Falk] can do the same if she wants."
Slack also says that while he's showcased his own busty characters for Chaos Theory, he always finds a way to "cover them up" with T-shirts he adds before the show or huge lettering that's been painted over a few of his characters' chests.
Falk says that the piece is currently hanging in her studio and that interested buyers can seek her out personally.
Damon Breidenbach, another Phoenix artist posting on Falk's Facebook page, disagreed with Slack's actions:
"1. The painting is beautiful. 2. You were asked to submit a work and you did. It was rejected because of content which means you are being censored. Do not submit another work. 3. There has been nudity and sexually suggestive work in this show before and no one seemed to mind when it was painted by heterosexual white men. You are being censored. 4. In regards to #3, if you are being censored for content and you are a woman, an argument can be made or at least a discussion opened into whether or not this can be classified as unconscious misogyny or homophobia or both. That is fair game . . . I like Randy very much and definitely recognize his contributions as well as his talent, but this is a bad play on his part. He is turning his back on a peer and fellow artist whether he currently sees it that way or not."
James Angel, a local painter and member of 3CarPileUp, a contemporary painting group that includes Slack and David Dauncey, agreed with Slack's decision and admitted he, too, has had a piece rejected for the show.
"Randy did that to me a few years back — and I co-founded the event!" he wrote on Facebook. "Ultimately, it is his space, though, so he gets all the outrage from 80-year-olds and moms! Chaos Theory, though, is all this arts community has. Think about it. Don't piss in the well."
Turnout at the show was huge, as expected, with very little chaos.
There was just one protest. Local artist Pete Petrisko showed up in a blindfold and a T-shirt covered in "penises, vaginas, moaning faces, and . . . aeroplanes," according to Petrisko. He stood in silent protest — with a musical accompaniment by violinist Haley Tilden Ritter — for about 40 minutes. Petrisko calls his piece of performance art Shameful Parts for Happy Masses.
Slack says the night's events were "all in good fun" and that response to the show was overwhelmingly positive.
"I don't make any money on this thing," says Slack, who promises to continue curating and hosting the event despite the uproar and increased publicity. "All I do is lose sleep and spend money . . . The only thing I can control now is to make it happy for the masses."